Newest Review: ... purpose, there are not that many internal staircases to the upper floors of the Malmaison and the easiest way to reach them is by lift. T... more
The Daily Mail is Right. Prison IS like a Hotel
Malmaison Hotel (Oxford)
Member Name: SWSt
Malmaison Hotel (Oxford)
Advantages: Very luxurious
Disadvantages: Extremely expensive, slightly gloomy rooms
As Daily Mail readers will know, going to prison is a bit like staying in a hotel. Well, in the case of the Malmaison Oxford, that's true since, until 1996, the hotel really was a fully functioning prison. Since then, it has also featured in a number of TV series and movies, including Bad Girls and Vinnie Jones' Mean Machine remake. It was also the prison inhabited by Ronnie Barker in 1970s classic Porridge.
I got a taste of life on the inside when I attended a work-related event in Oxford. It was well above my normal class of hotel (work's budget usually stretches to a Travelodge), but since another company was paying, I got to sample this "luxury boutique" hotel.
Breaking and Entering
The Malmaison is ideally located for anyone who wishes to stay in Oxford to explore, since it is in a very central location right at the edge of one of the main shopping areas, next to Oxford Castle. It is actually slightly tricky to find, since it is in the same complex as the Castle and set quite far back from the road. Most of the signage simply directs you to the Castle and it's not immediately obvious that the hotel is in the same location. Indeed, although I had a map and directions on my phone (and so knew I was in the right area), I actually walked past the hotel a couple of times before I found it, since it's not immediately obvious from the street.
Entering the hotel is an impressive business, since the original prison gateway has been retained and is an imposing structure. This leads into a reception area which is rather dark (not helped by the fact that it is furnished with dark furniture).The check-in process was very quick (just a couple of minutes) and although my room was not quite ready when I arrived (I arrived before the official check-in time), the friendly staff were quite happy to complete the registration process there and then and store my luggage for me until the room was ready. Check-in time officially is after 3pm (with a check-out time of noon), but if you do arrive early, at least you don't have to hang around or trudge your luggage with you.
Casing the Joint
Due to its original purpose, there are not that many internal staircases to the upper floors of the Malmaison and the easiest way to reach them is by lift. These are quite small and dark, so may cause a few issues for people of a larger persuasion, or those with a fear of lifts or confined spaces. They are also very slow and seem to take an eternity both to reach you and then get you to your desired floor.
Without being anything so tacky as a "theme hotel", the Malmaison is rather striking. Rather than completely gutting the original prison and rebuilding it internally, the owners chose to retain the prison theme. As such, one area of the hotel retains the structure of a series of open landings and metal staircases that will be familiar to anyone who has ever seen Porridge. Similarly, many of the rooms are actually converted prison cells (although other, more standard rooms are also available if the idea if this freaks you out). These still retain the original heavy metal doors and high, narrow windows.
Don't let this put you off, though, since this is a real luxury hotel. Each room consists of several cells knocked into one and so is at least as large as your standard hotel room and bigger than many I have stayed in.
Room furnishings are tasteful and use the space to maximum effect. A large, comfortable bed sits in the middle of most rooms, with a range of other furniture (including a writing desk, double wardrobe and bedside cabinets) placed strategically to make the best use of space. There is even a small sofa at the end of the bed and a plasma TV built into wall. The room is comfortable and pleasantly furnished without being cluttered, whilst further investigation of some of the furniture (particularly the wardrobe) reveals useful items like coffee/tea making facilities, a hairdryer and an iron. Everything you will need, in other words.
Time off for Good Behaviour
As added extras, the plasma TV offers a range of digital channels, including Sky Sports 1 & 2, which is quite unusual, whilst free wi-fi or tethered internet access is provided as standard, unlike many hotels which charge an additional fee for their use. The TV was a slight disappointment, since the range of channels it provided was very limited and slightly odd (Fashion TV?) and the picture quality (in my room at least) was not brilliant. Still, when you're in a city like Oxford, who wants to sit around watching TV anyway?!
Set off from the bedroom is a very pleasant en-suite bathroom, complete with toilet (no bucket for that truly authentic prison experience!), sink and bath. There's even a heated floor in the bathroom, so your poor old feet don't have to get cold if you get up in the middle of the night!
They Were Just Lying There. Honest
You can always tell a luxury hotel from the quality of its "freebies" which are just asking to be (ahem) liberated, and here the Malmaison scores very highly indeed. In the bathroom are three bottles of body lotion, shampoo and conditioner, together with a healthy chunk of soap (not the usual tiny sliver that vanishes as soon as it sees water). The bottles are all a decent size (150ml) and it's good quality stuff. Similarly in the bedroom, you get both a pen and a pencil, as well as a small writing pad that contains about 50 sheets of paper, rather than the usual two or three. Into the bag they all go!
You Can Just Sleep It Off In There, Sir
The prison cell model has an added benefit. Since the rooms are old prison cells, they have very thick walls and a solid metal door. This means that they are very quiet at night. Despite the fact that the hotel was more or less fully booked on the night I stayed, once I closed my door I wasn't disturbed by a single sound from outside or surrounding rooms. This is a pleasant change from most modern hotels where the paper-thin walls means you are often kept awake by the slamming of doors or heavy footsteps and chatter of guests returning to their rooms.
However nice they have been made, it's fair to say that there remains a certain cell-like quality to the rooms and it's always clear what their original purpose was. Whilst this adds to the charm and quirkiness, it does bring one or two disadvantages. Chief amongst these is the fact that each room contains only two very small, narrow and high windows which firstly negate any views of the city which the rooms might have and secondly means that not a lot of light can get in, so rooms can be a little gloomy.
One Spoonful Each
We held the evening meal in the hotel, although we selected from a special menu, rather than the standard one. I did see the standard one, however, and it looked very similar to some of the dishes which we had. It was also rather expensive (as you might expect) so, even allowing for Oxford prices, you will be able to find cheaper places to eat. It's definitely the type of place you would go to really treat yourself got something special, rather than as a quick break from shopping!
On the other hand if price is less of a concern, then you might find fewer better. The food we had was excellent, made from really high quality ingredients without being fussy and pretentious. Surprisingly, given it was such a posh place, portion sizes were exactly right - neither too little, nor too big. Certainly, no-one in our party was left complaining that they were still hungry and there were a small quantity of vegetables left over, suggesting everyone had more than enough. It was also cooked to perfection and absolutely delicious. The beef served for the main course, for example, was pink and not overcooked, and simply melted in the mouth
The Verdict. No Appeal Allowed.
Of course, all this luxury does not come cheap and a room at the Malmaison is going to cost you between £160-215 per night (closer to £300 if you choose to stay in one of the mega luxurious rooms). That's an awful lot for a room, and unless you're made of money, it's likely you're only going to stay one, possibly two nights. I have to confess that had someone else not been picking up the bill, there is no way I would ever have chosen to stay there, but it was nice for once to have that little bit of luxury and see how the other half live!
3 Oxford Castle
(c) Copyright SWSt 2012
Summary: if this is prison, sign me up!
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